Call it an offer he couldn’t refuse. It came not from a gangster, but from a 12th-century emperor of China, who sent a letter to Tishi Repa, first praising the Tibetan master’s spiritual qualities, and going on to invite him to become the teacher of the Emperor.

“If you fulfill his wish and come to China,” it said, “the emperor will bestow every boon upon you in both spiritual and secular affairs. If you fail to fulfill the Emperor’s wish, you will never have another happy day.”

And so Tishi Repa, reluctantly, went off to China to become the Emperor’s guru.

That rather juicy tale is one among countless stories about great Tibetan spiritual masters to be found in Blazing Splendor: The Memoirs of Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche (Rangjung Yeshe Publications, 2005), a book that represents the Tibetan literary tradition called namtar, a spiritual autobiography.

Tulku Urgyen, however, did not want to have a namtar—he was too humble about his own attainment. And so his translator and close student Erik Pema Kunsang asked Tulku Urgyen to tell stories about the great spiritual masters he had known or heard about.

Recounting one’s teachers and the text and empowerments they shared are among the elements often found in a namtar. This no doubt has helped Buddhists in Tibet preserve lineages of transmission that date back centuries. The namtar The Great Terton: The Life and Activities of Chokgyur Lingpa, for example, traces the lineage of this famous master of the 19th century down to the present day, including the four sons of Tulku Urgyen (who was the first Chokgyur Lingpa’s great-grandson), Tsikey Chokling Rinpoche, Chokyi Nyima Rinpoche, Mingyur Rinpoche, and Tsoknyi Rinpoche.

Namtars have been written since the time of Padmasambhava (or soon after), who brought Buddhism to Tibet in the 8th century. One of the most famous tales is attributed to Padmasambhava’s consort Yeshe Tsogyal, who tells his life story in the fashion of a legend. More recent namtars have been more prosaic, though many tell of experiences a modern mind finds supernatural.

I find namtars fascinating, and have been reading a string of them lately. The namtar I’m enjoying these days is by the contemporary lama Sogan Rinpoche, who was trained in Tibet under Chinese communist rule. In Dreams and Truths from the Ocean of Mind: Memoirs of Pema Lodoe, the Sixth Sogan Tulku of Tibet, he is blunt about how that despotic rule has squeezed the spirit out of much of the Buddhism it allows. Despite this obstacle Sogan was identified from afar by the 14th Dalai Lama (who lives in exile in India) as the reincarnation of a highly accomplished lama.

Sogan Rinpoche was fortunate enough to be trained in Dzogchen by one of the greatest masters of our time, Khenpo Munsel (1916–1993). Sogan numbers among those Tibetan teachers who have become fluent in English—he spent ten years living in the United States, though he now resides next to the Dalai Lama’s compound in Dharamsala, India.

His namtar fulfills a few aims of the genre: sharing how lineages pass on ancient techniques in a continuous line, inspiring readers to strengthen their own practice, and showing how masters dealt with their own life difficulties. Sogan Rinpoche describes how he and Khenpo Munsel used their practice to overcome hardships and obstacles—Khenpo Munsel relying on his spiritual outlook to survive almost two decades in Chinese Communist concentration camps, including torture and near-starvation, and Sogan Rinpoche overcoming the life-threatening challenges of walking over the Himalayas to freedom (for example, having to walk only at night to avoid being captured and fording icy rivers to avoid the soldiers guarding bridges).

Namtars are motivating for those dedicated to intensive practice, and so they are often recommended reading for practitioners in long retreats. But retreat or no, I feel namtars have a particularly important place in this day and age because they bring alive an intense dedication to spiritual practice that is relatively rare in these times in the West.

Mindfulness is far more common, reaching into every corner of our lives, including schools and businesses. That’s great—I’ve long been an advocate of introducing meditation to the widest public as a way to relieve some of the suffering inherent in simply living, not to mention the ratcheting up of stress these days, when, for example, we can be reached 24/7 on our phones (there was a day when you left work at the office and enjoyed home life uninterrupted by work concerns—a vanished lifestyle).

And mindfulness does, indeed, relieve suffering to some degree. When my friend Richard Davidson—the psychology professor who founded the Center for Healthy Minds at the University of Wisconsin-Madison—and I reviewed the best of peer-reviewed scientific studies of meditation in our book, Altered Traits: Science Reveals How Meditation Changes Your Mind, Brain, and Body, we found that even beginners benefited from mindfulness by becoming calmer, less easily upset, and more focused, among many other benefits.

But Jon Kabat-Zinn, another old friend and creator of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (the most-researched form of mindfulness), has long urged his teachers to undergo more rigorous training on retreats in vipassana (insight), the meditative tradition from which mindfulness springs. My own first teacher in mindfulness, Anagarika Munindra, told me back in Bodhgaya, India, in 1970 that it was fine to teach mindfulness to anyone, because almost all of them would be helped and at least a few would be interested enough to go deeper into their studies and practice of vipassana.

Ehich gets me to the second stream of meditative practice that has come to the West: intensive and prolonged retreat in the context of a particular lineage. This stream continues the traditions that began in Asia and traveled to the West, with classic Buddhist teachers and teachings.

While mindfulness (like yoga) has gone to scale, reaching numbers perhaps in the millions, this intensive retreat tradition appeals to far fewer: even as mindfulness goes large-scale, a few go deep in the relatively rare, prolonged retreats.

The difference in benefits became quite clear when Davidson’s lab brought 14 long-term practitioners one by one to have their brains scanned, among other measurements taken. The EEG results revealed that the everyday experience of these yogis seems to include what for the rest of us is a rare brain state—a high-energy gamma wave that ordinarily occurs for a split second when we have a creative insight or an intense sensory experience.

Their dedication to practice is astounding. The range of lifetime hours of meditation goes from 12,000 to 62,000 lifetime hours. The classic Tibetan three-year, three-month, three-day retreat amounts to about 10,000 hours of practice. And, of course, this metric doesn’t count the hours that a practitioner maintains a meditative sensibility off the cushion.

 Back to namtar: These spiritual autobiographies recount the lives of men and women who have dedicated their lives to such practice. Tulku Urgyen’s father did 33 years of retreat; Tulku Urgyen himself 24 or so. The namtars, almost by definition, describe exceptional figures whose spiritual commitments may be beyond what would be plausible for most of us. But these practitioners serve as a potent example of what we are all capable of and show us how we might take just another step down that path.

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